The June, 1922 issue of Motion Picture Classic Magazine featured a spread on an unknown sixteen year old Brooklynite, the winner of the 1921 Fame and Fortune Contest. The article, A Dream Come True, was appropriately titled. To Clara, this must have seemed to be the chance of a lifetime– not only a chance for “fame and fortune” as the contest boldly promised– but also a chance to extricate herself from the filth, poverty and degeneration of her life.
The contest stipulated a part in an upcoming movie, and Clara waited anxiously for her film début. However, months passed without much promise. During this time, Clara was increasingly occupied with her ailing mother, whose once sporadic “fits” were now an everyday occurrence.
Finally, a role became available to Clara, and she was cast in Beyond The Rainbow, starring Billy Dove. Clara’s film début proved to be anti-climatic, to say the least. Although incredibly earnest and eager, director Christy Cabanne was degrading toward and disgusted with the inexperienced girl. In the end, all of Clara’s efforts ended up on the cutting-room floor.
During this time Sarah Bow’s condition steadily worsened, and she became deranged and violent. Sarah was furious with Clara and her decision to become an actress, and this, combined with her mental illness, climaxed with one harrowing event. One night, Clara was awakened and startled by her mother, who knelt over her. A butcher knife in her hand, Sarah Bow explained quietly that it was much better for Clara to die than to continue her life as a “whore”. Sarah Bow then fainted, and all recollections of her attempt to murder her daughter vanished. Clara, however, could not and would never forget the horrifying night.
Sarah Bow would make other attempts to kill Clara before she was committed to the same asylum where her mother and sisters had died. Despite the anguish Clara must have felt, she continue faithfully to search for work.
Director Elmer Clifton saw Clara’s picture in Motion Picture Classic and decided that she would be ideal to cast in his next picture, Down to the Sea in Ships. Operating on a limited budget,
Clifton was looking for cheap talent and a youthful, tomboyish actress. After an almost catastrophic interview (Clara, in hopes to impress the director, had worn heavy makeup and borrowed a dress. The role Clifton was casting called for a young tomboy,
and he nearly turned Clara away) she was hired at 35 dollars a week.
Clara was cast as Dot Morgan, a young tomboy who disguises herself as a whaler to escape from her Quaker family. Clara’s spunky performance adds significant spark to an otherwise bland film. Clara spent over three months filming Down to the Sea in Ships, and when she returned home she was exhausted and nerve-wracked. Still guilt ridden over her mother, Clara would frequently visit Sarah Bow and lobby with her father to have Sarah released.
In early January, 1923, Sarah Bow was finally succumbed by her illness and died. Clara, who at the time was an extra in Enemies of Women, was completely overtaken by emotion. Clara was certain that her career had exacerbated her mother’s condition, and felt responsible for her death. However, ignoring her wrenching guilt and depression, Clara continued her work. This would become a common trend in Clara’s life in Hollywood, as she often forsook every aspect of her personal health to appease her producers.
Clara Bow was summoned to Astoria, New York, for a screen test for Grit, a film written by F. Scott Fitzgerald under a commission from the Film Guild. It was during the many screen tests that Clara met cameraman Arthur Jacobson. He was immediately taken with the young actress, as he recalled in Runnin’ Wild: “She just jumped right off the screen…and her eyes– all she had to do was lift those lids and she was flirting.” Jacobson obviously wasn’t the only left with this impression, as Clara was quickly cast as Orchid McGonigle, the hero’s love interest.
While Grit (of which no prints survive) received lukewarm reviews at best, another important event occurred in Clara’s life. She fell in love with Arthur Jacobson, the cameraman on whom she had made such an indelible impression. Despite Robert Bow’s disapproval and overprotection, Clara and Jacobson managed to see each other as often as possible.
During this time Clara was approached by Jack Bachman, a representative of Preferred Pictures in Hollywood, California. Bachman gave the 17 year old an offer she could not refuse: a 3 month trial period at Preferred Pictures with a salary of fifty dollars per week. With Maxine Alton, a young agent, as her chaperone, Clara Bow was going to Hollywood.
Clara Bow arrived in Hollywood without the fanfare she expected. Utterly bedraggled after days of train travel, and wearing her only sweater and skirt, Maxine Alton had whisked Clara immediately away, fearing what the cameras and publicity men would think of the miserable looking girl. Benjamin Schulberg, head of Preferred Pictures, was appalled when he saw Clara. Expecting a young beauty, he nearly turned Clara away at the door. However, his opinion was changed after he screen tested her. Amazed by her unfeigned emotions and ease with which she acted, he cast her as the second lead in his latest picture Maytime.
After Maytime’s completion, with no other parts available to Clara, Schulberg made a shrewd business move. He began to “loan out” Clara to other studios. Clara Bow’s first “loan out” was to Frank Lloyd, a director at First National. Clara was cast in Black Oxen, a best selling novel turned movie starring Corrine Griffith. Clara was next loaned to John McCormick, who was producing Painted People, starring his wife, Colleen Moore. However, Clara did less than three weeks of work on the film.
With the very successful release of Black Oxen, and Poisoned Pleasure and Daughters of Pleasure also to her credit, Clara was beginning to make a name for herself in Hollywood. She was selected as a WAMPAS Baby Star of 1924, an award which honored blossoming young actresses.
Clara Bow went on to act in Wine (Universal), This Woman (Warner), and Black Lightening (Gotham). None of these pictures was of particular merit or worthy of Clara’s talent. However, they did make Benjamin Schulberg richer and richer, as he pocketed 60 percent of what Clara earned in these pictures.
Robert Bow had since joined his daughter in Hollywood, titling himself as her “Business Manager”. In truth, he made no effort to work at all, living off of Clara’s profits as he would for many years. He also used the notoriety of being the father of Clara Bow as a means to find girls. In one instance, it worked so well that he managed to get married. His bride was an 18 year old girl named Ella Mowery. They divorced less than a month later.
Clara Bow returned to Preferred Pictures to act in Capital Punishment. The film received caustic reviews, but gave Clara her best role since Black Oxen. Clara was next loaned out to Ernst Lubitsch, who cast her in Kiss Me Again.
Clara’s performance in Kiss Me Again earned her raving reviews, and was her most distinguished performance yet. However, roles such as these were few and far between. The majority of Clara’s work to date was in cheap quickies– hastily made films that fed off of the low brow audiences. However, despite the lack of decent material, Clara was making a name for herself in Hollywood, and making plenty of money for Benjamin Schulberg. Clara was blind to Schulberg’s obvious exploitation. Schulberg reaped the fruits of Clara’s work. While she worked grueling hours, often in several pictures at once for different studios, Schulberg made 3 or 4 times her salary, simply by owning her contract. However, Clara saw Schulberg as a god, and saw her career in his fist. She dared not question his business practices, for fear that she would be flung aside, following the suit of the many other forgotten Hollywood starlets.
Schulberg also had a keen eye for the public’s tastes, and it was with this in mind that he bought the rights to the best-selling novel, The Plastic Age. The book had all the components of a hit movie. Schulberg cast Clara Bow in the lead role, and Gilbert Roland opposite. Perhaps more memorable, though, was Clara’s relationship with Roland off-screen.
Gilbert Roland, (neé Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso) was born in Mexico. While originally a bull fighter, Roland sought work in the movies. Prior to his role in The Plastic Age, Roland had merely done work as an extra. However, Schulberg knew that the dark and handsome young man had the makings of a star, and cast him in a leading role. Clara and Roland were smitten with one another soon after shooting began. Although from polarly opposite backgrounds, the two found comfort in their similarities. Both had overcome many difficult barriers to reach their aspirations. They became very close friends as well as lovers, and would continue to write to one another for many years to come. Clara’s relationship with Roland was perhaps her first primarily healthy one since her relationship with Artie Jacobson.
By the end of 1925 Clara Bow was famous. She had more than 20 films to her credit, and there
were no signs that her roles would cease. The New York Times wrote of Clara: “She has eyes that would drag any youngster away from his books…and she knows how to use eyes, shoulders, and all the rest of her tiny self in the most effective manner. She radiates and elfin sensuousness.” Nearly 75 years later, The New Yorker attempts to describe this same appeal: “[Clara Bow] doesn’t just have come hither eyes: she has a come hither face and body, too. “(The New Yorker, April 24 & May 1, 2000).
But to ascribe all of Clara Bow’s success simply to her physical beauty would do her a great injustice. Clara also had a deft and often beautiful command of emotions. She could cry, she could laugh, be joyful, or sorrow, and the audience, alone in the dark, would feel all these emotions along with Clara. Everything about Clara’s acting is subtle and genuine, almost to the point where it isn’t acting. Indeed this was the key to her appeal: Clara’s performances never seemed scripted or rehearsed, they seemed real.
Indeed, Clara Bow had something; something that captivated and hypnotized the audiences as they stared at her, flickering on the screen; something that lured them back again and again. In 1926 that something was given a name, (albeit just as enigmatic)– “It”.